Seeing People Like Trees

Dr. Michael Kearney is a skilled hospice physician, gifted writer, former colleague, and treasured friend.[i]  He recently posted this:

“Answering a question about how we can judge ourselves less harshly, Ram Dass writes:  Part of it is observing oneself more impersonally… When you go into the woods and look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, “ You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in.  And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

I find this a helpful metaphor.  It is common to look at how someone appears, how they present themselves, and how they behave and put them in categories of good or bad, respectable or not.  We do this to ourselves as well. Our inner critic can be fierce in judging who we are, what we’ve done, and what we should have done.

Thinking of people like trees can give us an alternative.

Look at this Eastern Redbud tree in our backyard:

Somebody looking at it will assume that the trunk is curved to the right because that is the direction in which the sun shines into our yard.  That is correct. But I know more about its history.   

We planted it ten years ago and it had a hard time getting established. The top of the trunk was often bending so far following the sun that it was in danger of falling over and having its roots upended. We tried bracing with different methods — vertical stakes and ground anchors — but the growing center branch was always veering perilously to the right.  One day a gardener pointed out that the bracing was no longer helping. The tree had become dependent on external support and was not developing its own root system. We removed the bracing.  After one strong windstorm, the tree bent completely over, and the tip was touching the ground – we didn’t know if it would recover. But it did.  In time, the roots became established and created the strong support it needed. It now reaches in two directions: one continues orienting toward the sun while the other grows vertically, adding balance to the whole. It may not win “Best of Show” in a horticultural contest, but when I look at it, I see a living presence that has had to struggle to survive and has succeeded.

So it is with many of our fellow human beings.

Early in my ministry, I felt a calling to do memorial services, regardless of whether I had known the person or if they had any religious affiliation. 

We were living in the small, rural community of Wapato, Washington, when I got a call from the local mortician.  He asked me to do a graveside service for a man who had no known family and just a few friends.   I agreed.  I met with the friends to gain a sense of the man’s life, chose a few relevant Scripture passages, then led the service.  A half-dozen people were present.  No impressive obituaries were published, nor were any soaring eulogies given. But like a tree that had faced many challenges, this man had endured a great deal.  I remember feeling a sacred presence as we honored him.

We know trees benefit from skillful pruning.  A good arborist sees each tree in its unique environment and shapes it to help it flourish.  The same is true for loving parents, dedicated teachers, insightful mentors, and caring friends.

Following a spiritual path can be an act in which we open ourselves to being pruned by the wisdom and practices that a tradition gives us. As the saying goes, “God meets us where we are but doesn’t leave us there.” 

A friend of mine is a retired police captain.  He told me that a turning point in his career was when he began seeing people with compassion instead of judgment.  And his life was profoundly influenced by Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, who has spent decades working with at-risk youth, convicted felons, gang members, and their families.[ii]  Father Boyle has said, “I choose to stand in awe at the burdens carried by the poor rather than standing in judgment about how they carry them.”

Take a close look at the oak that Michael photographed while hiking the San Ysidro Creek:

How many twists and turns has it made while seeking the life-giving sun?  What a story it could tell.

Oak Photo: Dr. Kearney

[i] To see Michael’s writings and meditations, go to  Michael’s wife, Radhule Weineger, is a popular mindfulness teacher whose work can be seen at